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Myanmar refugees in India fear more arrests, deportations

FILE - Myanmar refugees living in Delhi pray outside UNHCR office on the occasion of World Refugee Day in New Delhi, India, June 20, 2023.
FILE - Myanmar refugees living in Delhi pray outside UNHCR office on the occasion of World Refugee Day in New Delhi, India, June 20, 2023.

Refugees from Myanmar seeking shelter from their country’s grinding civil war in neighboring India tell VOA they fear a wave of arrests and forced returns following the Manipur state government’s recent moves to start deporting them.

Earlier this month, on May 2, Manipur Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren Singh announced the deportation of 77 “illegal immigrants from Myanmar” on his social media page, calling it the “first phase.”

In comments on social media again last Wednesday, the chief minister said the process of deporting some 5,400 more “illegal immigrants” was “underway.”

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, says nearly 60,000 refugees have fled to India since Myanmar’s military toppled the country’s democratically elected government and seized power in 2021, setting off a bloody civil war that has claimed thousands of lives.

The refugees are spread across three provinces in India’s far east on the border with Myanmar, but authorities in Manipur have taken the most aggressive steps to send them back. Officials there blame the refugees for fueling the state’s own spate of deadly communal clashes over the past year.

India does not officially recognize refugees and has not signed the U.N. refugee convention.

Refugees in Manipur say the recent deportations have put them on edge. Some have begun to relocate to avoid the government’s anticipated dragnet.

“That is the very thing we are afraid of. That’s why … we moved here to another border village, because we are afraid of the Manipur government,” said Seithang Haokip, speaking with VOA by phone from a hiding place a few kilometers from the border.

“All of us are very afraid of both sides, from both sides, of being arrested by the Manipur government and by the Myanmar military regime,” he said.

Seithang Haokip said he crossed into India illegally about two years ago from Myanmar’s Chin state, where he had joined a nationwide civil disobedience movement and was helping lead local strikes against the regime.

He and others say they fear for their lives if they were to be arrested and returned to Myanmar.

“They [the Myanmar military] already opened many files on me, so military junta already wanted me, so definitely they will arrest me and they will put [me] in jail for long time, or they can maybe kill me,” said Myo, another refugee from Myanmar who is in hiding near the border. Myo asked that his full name not be used for his safety.

Myo told VOA that he also crossed into India illegally a few years ago after joining Myanmar’s civil disobedience movement. He and his wife and son now share a small hut with two other families. He said they all have been on constant alert since the news of the recent deportations.

“When we hear [sounds] of truck or car or police or army coming around us, we are ready to run away or hide, so this kind of fear every day,” said Myo.

“We all feel like that. This is a signal that we are no more safe in India,” he said.

Right groups say their fears are well founded.

United Nations investigators have accused Myanmar’s junta of widespread war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the rape, torture and murder of both civilians and rebel fighters in detention. They say indiscriminate air and artillery attacks against the resistance have razed whole villages. Some 2.5 million people have been displaced by the fighting inside Myanmar itself, according to the U.N.

In April, the junta also began enforcing a years-old conscription law that requires all men between the ages of 18 and 35 serve at least two years and banned military-age men from leaving the country.

At 31, Salai Dokhar, another refugee, said he could be forced to fight for a military he loathes and ordered to kill his fellow countrymen if sent back to Myanmar. Even in the relative safety of New Delhi, India’s sprawling capital, more than 2,000 kilometers from the border, he said he too has a growing fear of being arrested and deported.

“I stay home. Except for emergency issues I never go out. We have to hide ourselves from the authorities to [not] be arrested,” Salai Dokhar said.

“Most of the people who entered to India are not safe in the hands of the [Myanmar] military, including me,” he added.

With the civil war in Myanmar still raging, Human Rights Watch says Indian authorities should allow the refugees to stay until they feel ready to return on their own.

“Conditions are extremely dangerous for civilians in many parts of Myanmar, where there is an ongoing armed conflict. Many civilians have been forced to flee to seek safety in India,” Meenakshi Ganguly, the group’s deputy Asia director, told VOA.

“The Indian authorities should protect their rights,” she added. “Although India has not signed the refugee convention, it is still obliged to not forcibly return refugees to Myanmar when there are such extreme risks to life and liberty.”

In a statement last week, the International Commission of Jurists said India was bound by other conventions it has signed to not force people back to countries where they are likely to be in danger. The commission has also urged Indian authorities to stop the deportations.

Refugees say they believe authorities in Manipur are currently holding well over 100 people from Myanmar in detention centers and fear that any day they may be the next to be deported.

The state government and chief minister of Manipur did not reply to VOA’s requests for an interview or for comment.

Refugees and rights groups say the state’s deportation drive is political, motivated by a bid for votes by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in a nationwide general election that started in April and runs until June.

Biren Singh, a member of the Hindu nationalist BJP, has blamed the refugees for stoking the communal clashes that have torn through Manipur since May 2023, pitting the majority and predominantly Hindu Meitei against the minority Kuki, who are mostly Christian. The Kuki are also kin to the ethnic Chin of western Myanmar, who make up many of the refugees in Manipur.

“Unfortunately, the refugees from Myanmar are being used by the ruling Biren Singh government in Manipur, and his BJP party, to stoke communal divisions. For petty political gains, the Biren Singh administration has created rifts between communities that will take a long time to heal, with hundreds killed and tens of thousands displaced,” said Ganguly.

“They detain the Myanmar refugees to play their political games in general election,” echoed Salai Dokhar, an ethnic Chin himself. “We are in a political game, for sure.”